10/24/2002 11:00PM

Tough times brings less racing

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The racing industry in Oklahoma has been in distress for the past several years, but it seems its struggles have reached a boiling point. During a dates hearing earlier this month, significant changes were made to the traditional racing calendar, with Oklahoma's biggest track, the Magna Entertainment-owned Remington Park, set to run only 70 days in 2003.

That's fewer than half of the 147 live dates that made up Remington's season in 1997.

The industry's current economics dictate the reduction. Oklahoma is battling the growth of racing and gaming in neighboring states, as well as the loss of handle instate to Native American-run OTB's. As a result, statewide handle has declined almost 50 percent in the last five years.

Times were good in 1997, when Oklahoma handled $122 million on its live races, and $302 million overall. But last year, those numbers dropped to $70 million and $175 million, respectively. Meanwhile, attendance for live racing has fallen from 632,360 in 1997 to 435,021 in 2001.

It is a trend that has hit Remington hard. Last year, the $94 million showplace track that opened in 1988 lost $4.7 million. This year, revenues are down 24 percent, according to track representative Corey Johnsen, who quoted that figure to racing commissioners during the dates hearing Oct. 17.

The panel later voted to adopt part of a reduced racing calendar pitched by Remington, awarding the track 20 days of Quarter Horse racing from Aug. 7 to Sept. 1, and 50 days of Thoroughbred racing from Sept. 7 to Nov. 30. Track officials said the shortened season was a temporary proposition designed to help them get back in the black.

They have watched handle during Remington's fall Thoroughbred meet drop from $1.1 million a day in 1997, to $761,021 last year. Attendance is also down, from a peak of 11,128 during the track's inaugural 70-date fall meet, to 2,337 during the same 59-date season in 2001.

"So much has changed since they started racing here in 1988," said Donnie Von Hemel, the winningest trainer at Remington.

Von Hemel pointed to the three tracks that have opened in neighboring Texas from 1994 and 1997, the expansion of Native American-run casinos within Oklahoma, and the fact that slot machines are now boosting purses significantly at some racing facilities in Louisiana and New Mexico.

He is one of many people in the industry who believe legislative relief is needed to help Oklahoma racing compete with those outside forces.

"Without some changes that would allow the tracks some expanded opportunities as far as gaming - and I don't know in what form, but something that includes horsemen in the equation - Oklahoma has a real tough road ahead of it," said Von Hemel.

Gordon Hare, executive director of the Oklahoma Racing Commission, agrees. "In light of the competition we continue to have from Internet wagering and alternative tribal gaming, something has got to be done, and it's got to be done soon," he said.

Some feel legislative help is on the way.

"I think with the economy the way it is [nationwide], and the fact that we're faced with 57,000 jobs that are related to the horse industry in this state, the political climate is becoming more and more right to offer other types of gaming other than parimutuel," said state representative Fred Stanley, a horse owner and 12-year legislator from Madill.

Until then, horsemen are facing reduced racing opportunities at Remington, and no Thoroughbred racing next year at Fair Meadows in Tulsa. It is a hardship that Ron Canady, executive director of the Oklahoma Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, believes could be alleviated somewhat with a small modification to the state racing calendar for 2003.

Canady said adding Thoroughbred races to Remington's mixed meet for Quarter Horses as originally proposed by Remington would help the situation. If the track asks the commission to reconsider that plan or any other it will likely come up for a vote at the commission's next meeting in November.